Ever since I was a child, my father to me was a man and stranger. In my memory, the first time he and I met was when I was about 4 years old. Recently talking to my mother, she mentioned that she and my father came back to Shanghai (where I lived with Grandma) from Yun Nan (where my parents worked) before my first birthday. But of course I had no memory of that encounter.

I came face to face with my father for the first time (in my mind) after a 72-hour trip sitting on a hard seat in a very crowded and smelly train with Grandma and my sister. Father had his hands crossed behind his back and walked slowly behind Mother. His shoulders raised slightly every time he took a breath. Father’s thick black eyebrow, his unusually thin frame and slow motion scared me at the age of 4.

During the 3 months we lived together, Father typically sat on a bamboo couch breathing heavily and resting. I avoided getting too close to him. When my mother exploded one day and wacked me repeatedly on the butt, Father remained seated with a solemn and pained look on his face.

Shortly after my mother married my father, he was sent to Yun Nan to be reformed as the descendent of a capitalist. Mother stayed in Shanghai for a while and then decided to join my father. Everyone advised her to pay a visit and check things out first. But her mind was made up. She wanted to be with her husband. After she got there, they were still forced to live apart because most of the time they were assigned to different projects and thus had to live on different sites.

As the Cultural Revolution was escalating to a full-fledged factional struggle, a bad situation got even worse for my parents. In my father’s case, he was denounced at every public meeting in which he was forced to bow his head and wear a big sign in front of his chest that said “I am a descent of a capitalist. I deserve to die.” My parents fled to Shanghai when I was about one to escape the life-threatening violence fanned by the national police chief’s declaration that it was ‘no big deal’ if Red Guards were beating ‘bad people’ to death. As a result different groups all claiming to defend Maoism were fighting against and killing each other and many innocent ‘bad people.’

My parents were so traumatized that they burned all their money on the balcony of our home in Shanghai and threw away the inherited jewelries in the Huangpu River. Because the more possessions the Red Guards could find and confiscate in the targets’ home, the more guilty they became.

Father managed to escape more brutal punishment because he was never caught saying anything politically incorrect in public. For over a decade, he was passed for any promotion or salary increase. Father never expected anything. He just wanted to be left alone. To numb himself, he turned to alcohol and cigarettes for relief.

I saw my father a few more times before they retired to Shanghai, and by that time I had already been in college. I never got really comfortable around him because he and my mother appeared once every four years in my life and then disappeared again. Father liked to sit next to me when he was around or stared at me from a distance. It used to freak me out especially when I turned into a teenager.

My sister and I made a second trip to Yun Nan the summer after I graduated from high school. Father showed us off to all of his friends and colleagues. He was enormously proud that I made it to college. Every morning my father would sit by our bed, gazing at us admiringly and waiting for my sister and me to wake up. For some reason, I couldn’t get enough sleep those days.

One day Joe’s love letter came in the mail. Father opened and read it. He got gravely upset. He was about to get a chance with his little girl, but now another man had won her heart. I didn’t understand at the time the magnitude of the loss he felt.

Father’s heavy drinking and smoking caught up with him eventually. His asthma and bronchitis condition worsened and stopped him from living a normal life at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 when things were finally looking up for him, an accountant with a college degree and many years of experience.

Retirement didn’t improve his poor health. The hot and humid summer and cold and damp winter in Shanghai were not kind to his asthma. He was constantly gasping for air. Father became glued to the same bamboo chair brought back from Yun Nan, watching TV or napping all day. Occasionally, he would ask my mother to take out his favorite suit from the wardrobe and brag about its high quality. It was custom-made decades ago by the best tailor in Shanghai just for him.

The day my father died in 1990, I had a dream. I was lost in a funeral home where white flags were flying everywhere. I called home from Long Island, NY and found out that he had passed away in the hospital. I was sad but didn’t cry.

What do I want Jane, Michelle and Jake to know about their grandfather? Well, he was a kind and fun-loving man who was robbed the opportunity to live a dignified and fulfilled life by the Cultural Revolution. If a friend asked to borrow money from my father, he’d get a loan from someone else and give it to him. Father bought a motorcycle when he was in Yun Nan even though he was hardly well enough to ride it. He purchased a high-end camera after moving back to Shanghai, but I never saw him taking pictures with it. If Father had been healthy, he would have had so much fun with life. If he had been alive to see the births of my three children, he’d have been so proud and happy! He’d have adored and spoiled them to death.

I also want Jane, Michelle and Jake to understand how fortunate they are to have their dad present in their lives. Their father has been with them through every stumble, every injury, car/computer problem, accident and every birthday, graduation, ceremony and sports game. He’d offer his life in exchange for any of theirs as if he were asked to pass the salt at the table.

Happy Father’s Day to all you fathers out there!